Toward a More Perfect Union
in an Age of Diversity

American Stories

by Rosemary L. Bray

In some circles, talk is cheap. But in the next few years, it may become our country's most valuable asset. Not just any kind of talk, of course, but genuine civic discourse: the talk of engaged citizens who care about the country and the community they live in, people who don't always understand their fellow Americans, but would like to. People like me, and like you.

There are so many American stories; this discussion guide has captured a few of them. Yet so many of us know only one or two versions. So many more of us think that our stories are mutually exclusive: The story of native American people whose lands were wrested from them versus the story of white settlers who moved across the great plains; the story of African-Americans cruelly separated from their native homes versus the story of Southern planters who used slave labor to build their wealth; the story of immigrants who fled their homelands for the sake of a distant promise versus those Americans whose families seemed always to be here. And there are the stories of those whose American history is nothing like the stories above, stories of people who feel torn by what often seems like interests not their own.

In the face of these divergent stories and complex identities, our ability to talk to each other and to listen to each other becomes crucial. With all the other stresses of a postindustrial world, many Americans believe the only choices are to paper over what seems dissonant about ourselves and our nation, or to see those differences -- and be destroyed. But more and more of us view this choice as a false one. There is another option open to all of us:

For parallel to the stories of injustice and persecution that are a real part of American history, are the stories of justice and hope that continue to fuel a common love for and commitment to the American experiment.

Looking at ourselves, our cultures, our histories as Americans can be frightening, especially when we join with people of vastly different experiences, people who are watching and listening to us, possibly even judging us. Those of us who make the choice to join conversations like these, who choose to share our stories of America and to be truthful about the experiences of our lives, must believe that others are taking that same risk with us -- the risk of being our real selves.

This is so very difficult to do. We fear being misunderstood or disliked for what we say. We fear being accused of hatred or anger, when what we really feel is anxious, or searching, or just confused. Or perhaps we really feel just as angry or as hateful as we sound -- but we don't want to be this way. All these are risks inherent in talking and listening to one another. But once we begin to truly listen to one another, we gain the courage to speak honestly, knowing we will be fully heard.

Our nation does face real and serious challenges -- economic, political and social challenges that are often rooted in the very histories that some of us would like to dismiss. The anxiety so many of us feel now is not our imagination, and much of what we feel cannot simply be brushed aside. But we who have joined in this project believe that our challenges as Americans are best faced directly, and most effectively faced together, sometimes in spite of our pasts, sometimes because of our pasts, but always, with respect for our pasts.

Can talking and listening alone solve the problems we face: the economic dislocation so many of us experience now; the racial and ethnic tensions that continue to plague us; the nagging fears about the world and the future our children will inherit? No, of course not.

But talking and listening to one another about who we are, telling and hearing these many American stories -- these are efforts that help us to focus on what really matters to us. They help us to find the common ground among us, those needs and dreams we all share. Talking and listening can fuel our belief in a common American life and energize us for the work that lies ahead.

When the stakes are as high as this -- the future of the country we call home -- talk can never be considered cheap. We who have worked on this project believe that the real enemy of American life is a common silence among us about who we are. Our films, this discussion guide -- these are our small contributions to the effort to break that silence. Your honesty about your life and experience, your willingness to join in common conversation and to hear what you may never have heard before -- these are your contributions. The renewal of America that so many of us long for begins the moment we begin.

Rosemary L. Bray, one of the participants in the film Talk to Me: Americans in Conversation, is a writer and cultural critic in Montclair, NJ. Her political memoir,"Unafraid of the Dark," will be published in 1997 by Random House.

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